A New Democratic Message Shouldn’t Sound Like 1990s-Era Clintonism

I don’t know if you saw Molly Ball’s recent piece titled On Safari in Trump’s America, but the basic idea was that researchers from The Third Way had gone to talk to folks in Middle America and then wound up writing a report that reflected what they wanted to say before they went. I thought of that when I saw the conclusions of the latest Women’s Voices Women Vote Action Fund survey. In their polling memo, Stan Greenberg and Nancy Zdunkewicz give a prescription for the Democrats that reads like a history of Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign.

I’m not saying the conclusions are wrong necessarily, and I have a lot of respect for Stan Greenberg, but he was the pollster on Clinton’s 1992 campaign and an architect of his economic messaging. It just seems highly coincidental that the message he is sending now sounds so much like the one he helped create back then.

According to the pollsters, the solution is staring Democrats in their faces. The voters who trust neither party need to be convinced that one party, the Trump-led Republicans, had already betrayed them. One of the best-testing messages mirrored what Democrats had said for years: “Trickle-down has failed and the richest need to pay their fair share of taxes.” They had just not said so effectively about Trump and Republicans in Congress.

“It is time to recognize that these voters will not be motivated unless they hear a message from the Democrat who says he or she is ‘fed up’ and ‘the economy and politics are rigged against the hard-working middle class,’” the pollsters advise. “The message deplores that ‘corporate lobbyists and billionaires spend unlimited money to get their way,’ which is more ‘trickle down’ while ‘people who play by the rules are crushed by the cost of health care, child care, housing and student debt.’ While it ends by proposing a range of changes ‘so American grows the middle class again,’ it is otherwise mostly negative and dramatic.”

Politics can be cyclical, and some things never change, so it could be that fighting against trickle-down economics, promoting the little guy who plays by the rules, and focusing relentlessly on “the middle class” are the perfect messages (once again) for this upcoming election season. Arguing in favor of this is the business friendly tax plan the House Republicans rolled out this morning that makes trickle-down economics topical again. To my ears, though, it’s stale and unexciting and given the results for the American people over the intervening years since 1992, amounts almost to an empty promise.

I strongly believe that the Democrats can only excite people and have credibility by offering fresh ideas that haven’t been heard before, or at least in living memory. I don’t disagree that these ideas should be cast in a “mostly negative and dramatic” way, but they shouldn’t sound like unreconstructed Clintonism.

I’d recommend reading Gilad Edelman’s new feature in our magazine, The Democrats Confront Monopoly. It might encourage you that the Democrats—or at least a growing segment of them—realize that they need to take on corporate concentration and begin taking antitrust policy seriously again. But one thing you’ll realize is that the fresh messaging probably won’t poll that well, according to the survey that Greenberg and Zdunkewicz just conducted, because voters aren’t “used to hearing and thinking about the perils of monopoly.” To be effective, a lot of groundwork and repetition will be required. Fortunately, the ideas are perfectly suited for the “rising American electorate.” Young voters are diverse and less prone to voting, but they also have unique problems that Monica Potts spelled out in The Post Ownership Society in our June/July/August 2015 issue. They will be receptive to a message that understands what it’s like to live in an insecure gig economy where everything is rented from a monopolistic corporation, and almost nothing is owned.

The new messaging isn’t exactly contradictory to the old Clinton message, but it’s different enough to be fresh and credible. But if you want to poll-test everything before you decide to try it, it might not meet that test.

We don’t need to find out what works with an unprimed focus group so much as we need to change what those focus groups expect to hear.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.